Equipment may mean roads open faster after accidents

WAILUKU – With the use of a new one-man robotic total station, police traffic investigators could be spending half as much time mapping the scenes of fatal crashes.

And that could mean shorter periods of road closures while officers work to identify and document skid marks, shattered glass, road signs and other evidence to help determine how a traffic collision occurred.

“Potentially, in most crashes, we would be able to speed up opening of roads and crash scenes,” said Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the police Traffic Section. “A high percentage of crashes will show a reduction in time.

“If it takes us two hours now, given the same circumstances, potentially we could do it in under an hour.”

In addition to investigating 16 fatal crashes on Maui County roads in 2013, traffic officers responded to near-fatal collisions.

Police are transitioning into using the new equipment for crash investigations.

In December, 11 police traffic officers completed two weeks of training to earn certifications in forensic mapping and use of the one-man robotic total station.

Grant funding of $90,000 paid for the new equipment, software and training.

Michael Selves, who led the training as a certified reconstruction specialist and owner of Collision Forensic Solutions of Omaha, Neb., said police departments in most states have total station devices but not many have the robotic total station that the Maui Police Department now has.

“It’s a step up in price and commitment,” he said.

Operation of the old total station instrument that police have been using requires at least two officers – one holding a prism pole with a reflector at a point to be mapped and the other directing the total station.

In contrast, the robotic total station can be operated by one person who can control the instrument from a distance by remote control, with the instrument lens moving as it follows the operator to mark points up to a range of at least 2,000 feet. The robotic total station also can be used in reflectorless mode, with the operator shooting an infrared beam to a point to be mapped.

Sgt. William Hankins, who supervises officers in the Vehicle Homicide Unit of the Traffic Section, said police won’t be operating the robotic total station with just one officer at crash scenes because a second officer can serve as another set of eyes to help look for roadway evidence and can keep watch over the equipment so it isn’t stolen or damaged.

But the technology will free other traffic investigators so they can be assigned to other jobs associated with a crash investigation, Hankins said.

With the robotic total station, communication between officers isn’t hampered by distance as the officer holding the prism pole moves farther away from the total station, Selves said.

And because roads can be opened to traffic sooner, officers have less exposure to dangerous road conditions and drivers face less traffic frustration, Selves said.

“It’s a win-win situation all the way around.” he said.

With the robotic total station, mapping can be done in 3-D and a map can be viewed on a hand-held device as points are plotted. “Before they leave that scene, they can see if they have everything before they tear down,” Selves said.

“There’s no guesswork now,” Hankins said.

Without the ability to preview the mapping, he recalled how a traffic investigator would have to go back to the crash scene after it had been cleared if he forgot to measure and mark a point in the scene.

Selves, a retired South Dakota Highway Patrol officer, said officers are doing the same measuring and mapping work that used to be done with a tape measure. But with the robotic total station, they’re doing it faster, Selves said.

He said the robotic total station also can be used to map bullet holes and blood spatter at shooting scenes. “It’s huge for crime scenes,” he said.

At times, Maui traffic officers have been called on to do forensic mapping of other types of crime scenes, including an officer-involved fatal shooting in Makawao and a standoff involving a fugitive in a Kahului neighborhood.

During the training in December, traffic officers used the robotic total station to map the parking lot at Papohaku Park in Wailuku. Officers also mapped the parking area at the Maui County forensic facility, where the training was held.

Traffic investigator Jonathan Kaneshiro said the robotic total station is “similar enough to what we used to use, but it’s faster and it’s easier.”

“The more complicated the scene, the more it’s going to help us,” Kaneshiro said.

While officers anticipate working more quickly and efficiently with the robotic total station, “it’s not that we’re going to rush through the scene,” Hankins said.

He said the length of road closures for investigations will depend on the size of the scene and the amount of evidence that investigators must decipher.

“Every crash dictates itself because not every crash is the same,” he said. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You got all the pieces. You don’t know where they belong. We got to make sure we got everything lined up right.

“The ones that we go to are the worst of the worst,” he said. “When we get called out, somebody’s life is usually over.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at